Before Real Quiet and Victory Gallop emerged as kings of this year's Triple Crown, trainer Neil Howard held the strongest hand.
He had four potential Kentucky Derby contenders: Lil's Lad, Comic Strip, Parade Ground and Missionary. Only Parade Ground made the cut, and he ran sixth in the Derby and fourth in the Belmont.
Now, three of the four are turf specialists. And yesterday at Laurel Park, in one of the final turf stakes of the summer meet, Missionary ran about as wide as a horse can run for one mile and captured the $75,000 Damascus Handicap by three-quarters of a length.
A 3-year-old challenging older horses, Missionary traveled the mile in 1 minute, 36 2/5 seconds. The 4-5 favorite returned $3.60 to win and headed a $16.80 exacta and $54.40 trifecta. Maryland horses Abacus Andy and Tyaskin finished second and third.
They were no match for the winner, who made the trip from Saratoga. Francisco Torres traveled from Kentucky to ride Missionary.
"I didn't want to be as wide as we were," said Torres, a top rider little-known outside his home state. "But that didn't take anything out of him. He's just a good horse. And he's only 3."
Howard came down from Saratoga to saddle Missionary. He said he'd been looking for a mile race on the turf for the chestnut son of Deputy Minister and the Conquistador Cielo mare Prayer Wheel.
But he wasn't looking for the No. 11 post in an 11-horse field and a four-wide adventure around the first turn and a five-wide trip around the second.
"He was a little wider than you'd like to see him," said the understated Howard, who last visited Maryland in May to judge the Maryland Horse Breeders' Association yearling show at Timonium.
After finishing fifth in April in the Derby Trial at Churchill Downs, Missionary underwent minor throat surgery to repair a breathing problem. Since the operation, Missionary has raced four times, three on the turf, winning the last two.
Missionary and two of Howard's other one-time Triple Crown contenders, Comic Strip and Parade Ground, are nominated to the Oct. 3 Virginia Derby, the marquee race (1 1/4 miles for 3-year-olds on the turf) at Colonial Downs in southern Virginia. Howard said Parade Ground will likely be his entrant there.
In all, 102 horses -- an incredible number -- were nominated to the Virginia Derby. In a related development yesterday, Lenny Hale, the racing secretary at Colonial Downs, said the track will provide a shuttle for Maryland horses -- good news for Maryland horsemen.